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The History of Port Hope

Port Hope was the proud Recipient of The Lieutenant Governor's Ontario Heritage Award for 2008!

Before Canada became a nation in 1867, Port Hope was already a boomtown. Its main streets were thronged with horse-drawn carriages and farmers’ wagons, its plank sidewalks crowded with shoppers and merchandise. Wood-burning locomotives pulled heavily loaded trains through town on their way to a harbour filled with schooners and steamships. Solid brick commercial blocks and houses lined the streets.

The town had grown rapidly since four families of English descent arrived by boat in 1793 and settled at the river mouth. Until then the area had been home to aboriginal groups—Huron, then Iroquois, and finally Mississauga—attracted by the salmon and sturgeon that swarmed in its river. On a French map dated 1688 their village is identified as “ganaraské”. That Iroquois name is remembered today in the Ganaraska River that flows through town.

The first European settlers came from the new United States. They had chosen to follow the British crown after the American Revolution. So had Elias Smith, a Montreal merchant who, with two partners, Jonathan and Abraham Walton, financed their arrival. In return for settling 40 families on the land and building a sawmill and flourmill to serve them, the partners received a grant of land roughly the size of modern urban Port Hope.

More families arrived including blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers, and merchants. The mills drew farmers from 50 and 60 kilometers away. Grain that could not be milled was bought by distilleries—there were eventually five along the river—that produced a famous Port Hope whisky.

In 1834 Port Hope had 1,500 residents and was incorporated as a town—the first so recognized along the lakefront between Kingston and Toronto. Its most rapid growth began 20 years later, when railways revolutionized travel in what is now Ontario.

In 1856 the Grand Trunk Railway connected Port Hope to Toronto and the Atlantic seaboard. Its viaduct over the Ganaraska was the second greatest engineering challenge on the route, exceeded only by bridging the St. Lawrence River at Montreal.

By that time another railway was heading north from Port Hope to open the vast timberlands and new farms of central Ontario. To help finance it the town council borrowed £50,000, an immense sum at the time. Within a few years the stake had tripled, but the line had stretched to Peterborough and Lindsay. Eventually it reached Georgian Bay, at Midland. Down this line came great loads of timber and grain. Some went east to England, but most was exported to the USA through Rochester across the lake.

With the economic boom, housing spread east and west beyond the river and new industries sprang up. Some residents became international figures. The Great Farini (a.k.a. William Hunt) successfully challenged the most famous tightrope walker of his time, Blondin, in stunts over the Niagara Gorge in 1860. Joseph Scriven wrote the words of one of the world’s best-loved hymns, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Unlike many other communities, Port Hope has suffered neither economic collapse nor runaway development. Many areas of the old town, including the downtown commercial core, remain little changed from the days of Queen Victoria. Fortunately, residents were quick to recognize the value of their architectural legacy. Hundreds of them have worked to conserve, restore, or renovate commercial blocks and private homes, making the town a tourist destination and a landmark of Ontario preservation. Like a time capsule, Port Hope captures the flavour of small town Ontario in the late 1800s.

The Great Farini (William Leonard Hunt)

The Great Farini was born in 1838, and spent his youth in the Port Hope and former Hope Township Area. He lived a truly sensational life, filled with many extraordinary adventures, some of the earliest being several amazing high-wire feats that staked his first claim to fame.

He made his debut in 1859, walking a rope strung between two buildings about 80 feet above the Ganaraska River in Port Hope. His second river walk drew a crowd of 8,000, nearly twice the population of the town. People watched in awe as he stood on his head in mid-walk.

His next great feat came a year later in 1860, when he challenged the legendary Frenchman Blondin to a high-wire competition 180 feet above the Niagara Gorge near the Falls.

Farini was more than a showman, he was the genius behind hundreds of innovations, from folding theatre seats to the modern parachute. A fearless explorer, his journey in southern Africa brought about the myth of the Lost City of Kalahari. He spoke seven languages, wrote several books, was an expert botanist and such an accomplished artist that his paintings were shown alongside those of contemporary Canadian masters. There is even some evidence that he worked as a spy in the American Civil War early in his life.

As a boy Farini lived west of Canton on a farm, where he practiced tightrope walking and studied to be a doctor; in later years he lived at 36 North Street in Port Hope. His final residence was at 77 Dorset Street. He died of old age in 1929 and is buried in Union Cemetery. His descendants still reside here in town.

Information from the book "The Great Farini" by Shane Peacock
Cover design and Illustration for "The Great Farini" by Shane Peacock (Penguin Books Canada Ltd.)

Joseph Scriven

image of Joseph Scriven

Teacher, scholar, lay preacher, Joseph Medlicott Scriven came to Canada from Dublin, Ireland in 1845. He lived in Western Ontario before moving to Rice Lake as a tutor, residing later in Port Hope, Ontario. Scriven died in 1886, leaving behind the record of a humanitarian who was looked upon as a saint, beautified by his own performance.

But Scriven's legacy was a hymn, which found favour 100 years ago and remains a favorite throughout the world - "What a Friend We Have in Jesus". While the hymn was universally known, there was sparse knowledge about the author. Joseph Scriven died in obscurity.

The hymn was first written as a poem and published in the Port Hope Guide in 1870. Someone in New York City received a package wrapped in that edition of the paper. They found the poem so moving they took it to a New York newspaper and had it published. Music was added to the words in another interesting turn of events. A traveling music salesman kept a copy of the poem with him because the words had touched him deeply. He lost his copy of the poem while he was visiting the Converse organ factory in Pennsylvania. Owner Charles Converse was also taken with the poem. He composed the music for it on the spot. The hymn continues to comfort all who hear it.

A monument inscribed with the words of the hymn is in the northeast corner of Memorial park. Scriven is buried on the north shore of Rice Lake. To visit his burial place, follow County Road 28 north of Port Hope, past the Village of Bewdley until you come to come to Hannah Road, before the Village of Balieboro. Turn right on Hannah Road and follow down to Scriven Road. Turn left on Scriven Road and follow to the blue historic plaque in front of the graveyard. josephscriven.org


What A Friend We Have In Jesus
What a friend we have in Jesus, 
All our sins and griefs to bear! 
What a privilege to carry 
Everything to God in prayer! 
Oh, what peace we often forfeit, 
Oh, what needless pain we bear- 
All because we do not carry 
Everything to God in prayer!
Have we trials and temptations? 
Is there trouble anywhere? 
We should never be discouraged: 
Take it to the Lord in prayer! 
Can we find a Friend so faithful, 
Who will all our sorrows share? 
Jesus knows our very weakness- 
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
Are we weak and heavy-laden, 
Cumbered with a load of care? 
Precious Savior, still our refuge- 
Take it to the Lord in prayer! 
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? 
Take it to the Lord in prayer! 
In His arms He'll take and shield thee 
Thou wilt find a solace there. 

At Right: Monument in Banbridge Northern Ireland  ©Sammy Tippit Ministries

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